On December 31, 2022, Billy Bratton ’25 became one of only 21 people to have at least four crossword puzzles published in The New York Times before turning 20 with an unrelated Saturday puzzle. To make it even more impressive, he has only been building jigsaw puzzles for almost three years.
“I started constructing crosswords in March 2020 when it came time to find a quarantine hobby,” Bratton said. “It seemed like a logical extension of crossword solving, a hobby that I was fortunate to pick up in January and February this year.”
According to Bratton, March 2020 was actually the worst possible time to start creating crosswords.
“A lot of other people have also made crossword puzzles their quarantine hobby,” Bratton said. “It has made submissions much more competitive across the board. It also didn’t help that I spent months making puzzles without software because I was too stubborn to buy them.”
Bratton joins a long list of other Carls who know crossword puzzles. Last fall semester, he attended a Carleton Connects webinar with two of them: Associate Provost and Professor of Computer Science David Liben-Nowell and Sophia Maymudes ’20, both of whom also published Constructors.
The most enjoyable part of the design for Bratton is twofold: the grid design, which relates to creating the puzzle size and symmetrical block pattern; and the fill, which consists of each answer in the puzzle that is not a themed entry (for themed puzzles) or a seed entry (which is what unthemed puzzles are built around).
“Those are by far the most interesting because they present an optimization problem,” Bratton said. “That’s one of the reasons I focus on unthemed puzzles. The other part is that I am completely deprived of topic ideas – everyone please send me topic ideas if you have any!”
Bratton makes sure the puzzles he creates are fresh and interesting too, so keep an eye out for contemporary slang in his grids.
“It’s oddly fun to keep my word list in good shape — I always try to stay hip by incorporating the novel slang of today’s youth,” Bratton said. “But for me, cluing is the worst thing, as it requires the most creativity.”
Bratton has also published puzzles with The Atlantic, LA Times, AVCX, Fireball Crosswords, the Universal Crossword, and others. He recommends solving his January 16, 2022 puzzle from The Atlantic as good. When you’re on campus, he also publishes a puzzle in the Carletonian every week!
“My ultimate goal is ten New York Times puzzles before I graduate,” Bratton said. “Time is ticking and it probably won’t happen, but that’s my goal.”
Bratton invites any Carl even remotely interested in crosswords to come up and ask questions.
“If I can do it,” he said, “it can’t be that hard!”
Erica Helgerud ’20 is a News and Social Media Manager at Carleton College.